Putting an end to old-fashioned meeting rooms and complicated video conferences, multi-touch whiteboards encourage group discussion and activate skills that are gaining importance in everyday work.
Text: Urs Binder,
A Forrester survey carried out in the autumn of 2016 found that more than half of all employees demand collaboration tools that are fun to use. At the same time, every third employee avoids conventional meeting rooms. The reasons for this include poor room design, outdated connections, complicated video conference systems and inadequate tools.
Today, the tools for collaboration are a great deal better than they once were. Consequently, a conference room is also used differently. It used to be a place where employees physically met and held a meeting, simply recording the content discussed on whiteboards or flipcharts. This was followed by video conferences, and now people work together there more on the basis of laptops. The teams are able to use communication tools such as Skype for Business, while employees have access to content from the cloud and use digital tools such as digital sticky notes or post-its for making comments and brainstorming. The problem is that the meeting rooms themselves have hardly changed. Traditional conference rooms or “meeting rooms”, as they are still often called even today, are not equipped for the digital manner of working.
However, participants would like to work in the same collaborative manner that they are used to in their everyday jobs. They would like to combine physical conferences with digital applications – something that is hardly possible in traditional rooms. After all, simple brainstorming in the team is impossible there using purely laptop-based tools. For this reason, employees are even less keen on using the meeting rooms.
It is therefore high time for something new. Two large multi-touch screens are now entering the collaboration arena in the form of the Surface Hub from Microsoft and the Spark Board from Cisco. They offer much more and are substantially easier to operate than conventional video conference systems. These solutions are designed to provide optimum support for teamwork. Participants join in a conference in a straightforward manner, making comments with a pen directly on the screen. Tools for arranging appointments, workflow integration and cloud storage form integral components. What’s more, the screens are sufficiently large for users to write and draw on them easily.
The Surface Hub is considered to be the first of its kind and was launched in early 2016. Available with a choice of 55-inch or 84-inch diagonal for HD or UHD respectively, the device accommodates not only the multi-touch screen, but also a complete Windows 10 PC, which however relies on the special operating system version Windows 10 Team. The Surface Hub is intended to be used as a whiteboard for spontaneous group work. Participants can use the integrated applications without the need to log on and incorporate elements from other applications or websites directly into the whiteboard from their Windows or Android mobile devices. Moreover, this can be done cable-free, for example via Near Field Communication (NFC) or Miracast.
External participants take part in the discussion using Skype for Business. For this purpose, the Surface Hub comprises two HD cameras with a 100-degree field of view, four microphones and a stereo loudspeaker. It also includes Office 365 and OneDrive.
Microsoft’s Surface Hub is suitable for spontaneous, cross-site group work. There is no need to log on.
Using the Surface Hub, a team distributed across several sites can “put their heads together” and work on the same whiteboard. This allows creative, cross-site collaboration in real time. Participants design, create, draw, highlight, comment and share contents in a straightforward manner – teamwork has never before been so simple.
Although the Surface Hub does have local memory, all new content that arises during the course of a meeting must be stored in the cloud before ending the session. This can be done with OneNote or OneDrive. Apart from that, the Surface Hub also works without a cloud connection, and the participants in a purely local meeting do not require their own cloud access. Nevertheless, this is most likely a purely theoretical issue, as Office 365 and OneDrive have become established in many companies as standard for all employees.
In early 2017, Cisco launched the Spark Board, also available in two sizes with a 55-inch or 70-inch diagonal, both with UHD resolution. The basic idea is the same as for the Surface Hub: spontaneous, straightforward group meetings, whiteboard functions and video conferencing. Cisco, however, consistently uses its collaboration solution Spark for this, with each participant requiring a Spark account and even the Board itself requiring a separate Spark license. All applications and contents are cloud-based. This means that Spark and a cloud connection are indispensable.
In the case of the Cisco Spark Board, all applications and contents are cloud-based.
The process of logging on for Spark Board is quite straightforward. With “proximity pairing”, the mobile device connects itself fully automatically via ultrasound when the user approaches the Spark Board. Once participants have logged on, all the content of their Spark area is available for use on the Board – in a sense, the Board becomes their own Spark device. Everything that is created or changed during a meeting ends up in the user’s personal Spark area, without the need for any further action, and does not need to be explicitly saved. For video conferences – with external participants also communicating via the Spark service – the Spark Board offers a 4K camera and an “acoustic antenna” (microphone array) with twelve elements. In this way, the voices of participants are clearly recorded, regardless of their position, and transmitted in high quality.
Google has announced a comparable product called Jamboard, which, however, will not become available until 2018. The Jamboard integrates comparable features such as a whiteboard, direct access to cloud storage and video conferencing. Just like the Surface Hub and the Spark Board, the Jamboard, too, is part of a comprehensive ecosystem – in this case the Google G-Suite. The Jamboard is based on this, meaning that it is not suitable for users with a Cisco or Microsoft infrastructure.
The meeting room itself hasn’t changed much, but the way in which it is used certainly has. Cloud-based applications make it possible to enter the room with a personal tablet, launch straight into cross-site collaboration and make full use of the large screen area. Team members can sketch and share their ideas quite easily using a pen. With Skype for Business, Cisco Spark and Google Hangouts, this works not only on site in the meeting room, but also globally.
The interactive whiteboards constitute a vital evolutionary step along the path towards a modern working environment for any tasks that require joint project work, idea finding and communication with colleagues.
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